For the first time in almost a half century, the public will be able to head out into South Carolina's creeks and swamps this weekend to pursue an old Southern sport – gator hunting.
A monthlong gator season opens Saturday, the first time since 1964 the public has been allowed to hunt alligators in the state.
“The population of gators is very stable, if not growing a bit,” said Sam Chappelear, a regional wildlife coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Seven other Southern states already have public hunts “and we wanted to offer that opportunity to those interested here in South Carolina,” he said. “But it's not just a free-for-all, go out and shoot gators. There are some stringent conditions.”
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Hunters must have a permit and can take only one gator. They must catch and restrain the gator first, pulling it beside their boat or near land before killing it with a handgun or a bang stick – a wooden stick with an exploding cartridge.
Decades ago, gator hunting was more like visiting a shooting gallery: Head into the swamp at night, shine a light, look for the eyes and shoot at whatever moves. Alligator hunting was banned in South Carolina in 1964 as the number of gators here and elsewhere declined.
For the past decade, however, the South Carolina gator population has been stable at about 100,000. The state resumed limited harvests on large private tracts 13 years ago, but that excluded most hunters.
As development spreads, humans have increasingly encountered alligators. Last year, a 59-year-old man swimming in Lake Moultrie lost his arm to a 12-foot alligator.
South Carolina held a lottery earlier this year for 1,000 available alligator permits. About 1,500 hunters from 18 states as far away as Utah applied. As of Thursday, just over 700 winners had paid their $100 fee and had been issued permits.
Reptile expert and conservationist Roark Ferguson of North Charleston, who also helps the state dispose of nuisance gators, wishes there had been more study.
“I have been against this from the start because the premise is some people thought we have too many alligators,” he said. “You can't have too many alligators because they are a self-regulating population.”
He said large gators eat smaller ones, and baby gators are prey for a variety of animals and birds. Of every 10 gators born, he said, only one or two survive to adulthood.
“We're a hunting and fishing state. I understand that, but I don't see the need,” he said. “The last thing they need are a bunch of Johnny Rednecks out there thinking they are somebody because they can kill an alligator.”